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Saturday, June 6, 2009

What's Going On With the Southern Residents?

K20 Spock with calf K38 Comet, pictured here in the summer of 2005. Today, they were the only two resident orcas seen off the west side of San Juan Island.

I try to keep an optimistic outlook on things, but I'm also a worrier. With the Southern Resident population of killer whlaes being listed as endangered in 2005, I had to balance these two aspects of my personality to find a realistic view of the situations The whales have a relatively small population of 80 some animals and face some very real dangers of declining salmon stocks and toxins in the water, but nature is resilient. With the way things have gone so far this season, however, I'm starting to become more concerned.

On February 6th of this year all three pods (J, K, and L) were seen in the inland waters, and all of the whales not listed as missing last year were present. Not only that, there were two new calves present, and a third new calf seen in J-Pod shortly thereafter, so things were looking relatively good. But since then, things have just been plain weird.

For the first time in more than 30 years, no resident whales were seen in inland waters for the month of April. J-Pod, usually a mainstay come late spring in the San Juan Islands, was actually out of the area for a whopping 44 days before finally returning on May 4th. When they did return, they had the K13 matriline of K-Pod with them, an unusual group to see separate from the rest of K-Pod. I define a matriline, by the way, as a female, her offspring, and her daughter's offspring, the most central unit of killer whale society. Each pod is made up of several related matrilines.

While the whales were "in", they were mostly very, very spread out - sometimes as much as 10 miles. This happens occasionally when they're foraging but it just felt different; on one day J1 and J2 were 7 miles ahead of the rest of J-Pod. The K13s left May 22nd, and J-Pod followed them out west on the 25th, exactly three weeks after coming in from the ocean.

Now we're getting into June, really one of the peak seasons for seeing orcas in the area, and the whales were absent for 12 days straight. (Note: The L12 sub-group came through nearly undetected one of these days - down the inside passage, and not picked up until heading west from Victoria.) Today, a report came in of residents on the west side of San Juan Island....but it was only K20 Spock and her calf K38 Comet, two members of the K13 matriline. It is unusal enough for either K-Pod or J-Pod to split up, as more often than not over the last 10 years of watching them when I've seen one pod, the entire group and all matrilines are present. Occasionally a matriline or two will split off and do something strange, but it is next to never that a matriline will split up. The only time I can think of it happening is when K31 Tatoosh separated from his pod, and that was shortly before he disappeared all together and was presumed dead.

These whales are highly social animals and their family groups are among the most stable found in nature, with neither male nor female offspring dispersing from their mother's group. I was a little concerned to see a K-Pod matriline splitting off the rest of the pod. I was a little concerned to see J-Pod so spread out and spending so little of the spring in the San Juan Islands. But I am downright worried to see Spock and Comet on their own with no other residents thought to be anywhere nearby.....that, to me, means something is just not right.

Hopefully this is not the beginning of a "red alert" for the Southern Resident whales. Hopefully it is just something strange, as so often when observing these whales they start to break their patterns just as soon as you think you've discovered one. But today, I just feel sick with worry that things are not okay in the whale world.


Warren Baker said...

It all sounds a bit ominous Monika. We'll have to hope all is well - fingers crossed!

Unknown said...

I agree, Monika... This has been a strange year for cetaceans, but the residents are definitely the most concerning. Does anyone know where they are traveling to once they reach the ocean or are they not trackable? It sounds like they are not trackable once they reach the ocean. I have always wondered though. I really hope they show up soon (selfish reason as I am going to be there in a week for a week), but also just for reassurance for you and everyone else. And I do hope they are okay....

Monika said...

Warren - there is really nothing we can do but cross our fingers and hope! Maybe they're just being weird, as they are apt to do, but with the strange sighting of just 2 whales yesterday everyone is definitely a little more on edge around here.

Michele - We pretty much lose track of them once they get to the open ocean. None of the whales are tagged, so all spotting is visual. As I'm sure you know, over the last couple of winters there have been a few sightings of K and L pods off the California coast, and occasional sightings off the OR or WA outer coasts, but we really don't know where all they go. Sometimes May and June have been a little spotty in terms of sightings in previous years, so hopefully things will get back to "normal" (whatever that is!) by the time you get up here for your visit!

julie said...

it is worrisome... and must have to do with not finding their favorite fish in the straits right now. hopefully, the salmon are plentiful somewhere and that they are getting enough to eat.

i wonder why no one has tagged one or two, just to see what's up. i realize that some people may feel it's invasive but the procedure is fairly benign and may yield some important info... also, the navy hasn't been "making noise" lately, has it?

Monika said...

Julie - I think it has everything to do with salmon (or lack thereof). I too am hoping they're at least getting enough to eat somewhere, even if its not here!

The last Navy incident I'm aware of was in early April very late at night, and no orcas were known to be around. That was in the inland waters...who knows what goes on in the open ocean.

There are a lot of pros and cons to tagging them. It could provide huge amounts of information as to where they spend their time, which could help us protect that area as critical habitat. It would also take away what privacy, for lack of a better word, that they still have left. I kind of like the notion that 85 whales can just disappear for months at a time and we know nothing about what they're doing. It's just not supposed to happen in June.

julie said...

ah..yes, that's a very good point, monika, on a reason for not tagging. i, too, love the fact that so much of nature keeps us guessing and the orcas do need what space they can get!

Warren Baker said...

Hey Monika,
My ''expertise '' in insects goes as far as buying a book on Odonata! I'm still learning, but I have most of the common ones on my garden list now. :-)